All she did was remove her daughter’s jacket. Her adult daughter. Her daughter that normally attended the mega-church, but was either guilted into joining her parents at their church or she possibly understood the importance of going with them this one Sunday each year.
It wasn’t really that warm on the sunny Easter morning, but the building’s south facing stained glass definitely did little to shield her from the sun’s heat.
At eleven thirty the service had been going now for an hour and yet there were at least ninety more minutes to go. All this is to say that I can’t put it beyond the young woman that her decision to remove the jacket at that precise moment had nothing to do with the temperature and everything to do with an attempt to increase her busy-ness and thereby make the time go by faster. In any case, it was her mom’s action that caused my attention to remain on the movement taking place on the padded pew in front of me.
Her mom brought nothing less than a mother’s tender, loving care to the moment–and a whole lot more. Her fingers, as they brushed her hand, her fingers lingered. And in that infinite instant lay an entire childhood. In that instant, I saw the reason to grab her hand every time she reaches up for mine, the reason to hug her body every time she opens her arms, the reason to kiss her cheek every time she is about to walk away, the reason to pick her up every dinnertime, the reason to rub her back every bedtime, the reason to never put whatever passing chores life presents ahead of touching her. That instant showed those with eyes to see the inescapable truth. It is its temporary nature that bestows upon touch its insurmountable value.
She was nearly ready for the bath. Her dad began to pull the rubber band out of her hair.
“I’ll get it, daddy,” she said.
She bent her little head forward and continued pulling from where her father had left it. Once her hair was free, she shook her head the way women do in shampoo commercials and smiled. He laughed.
“I don’t like it when you laugh at me,” she said.
“Huh?” he asked.
“You shouldn’t laugh at people, daddy,” she asserted.
“Oh, H-, I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing because what you did was funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” she said.
“Oh okay. Well, tell me about it then. What’s the rule?”
“You shouldn’t laugh at people, daddy. It’s not nice. That’s the rule,” she said. Her earnestness made him smile.
“Okay, H-. No laughing at people.”
“D- and Mommy don’t laugh at me. Only you laugh at me,” she continued, unaware of the particularly sharp barb her words contained.
“Is that so? Hmm. Well, I laugh a lot. And I think you are funny a lot of the time. And you seem to want to make me laugh a lot of the time.”
“Can I play a little after I’m clean? Mommy lets me.”
“Maybe that’s because you don’t lecture her,” he retorted. Immediate and intense regret followed.
A clean little H- put her My Little Pony onesie on and picked out the story to follow the obligatory reading from The Hobbit. It soon became clear that he wasn’t ready to concede defeat.
“So you don’t like it when I laugh at you?” he asked. “What if it’s because you did something to be funny?”
“It’s like this, daddy. When I do something funny, it sticks to me. And so when you laugh at it, you’re laughing at me.”
On the bed with her, half laying, half sitting, book in hand he stared at her. Not thinking he even twitched, he watched as she began a sustained and genuine-seeming bout of hysterical laughter. It seemed pure, but he couldn’t be sure. And his uncertainty frightened him. If there was one trait he knew he could work on, it was kindness. But he didn’t need his daughter to be the one to force him to learn it. Though, she was probably the only authority to which he would abdicate his power. After calming down, she claimed he had made some funny expression that made her laugh and playfully asked for another. But he had not. Being called out by otherworldly logic had put him nearly in tears, not poised to play buffoon dad. On top of the uncommon display of sage reasoning, is it possible she noticed this and purposefully disrupted the forming somber mood?
Even if there was an accredited parenting class, it seems unlikely it would cover bathroom protocol for opposite gender single parents.
“Are you shutting the door, daddy?” H- asked while standing outside the bathroom, as he, in fact, shut the bathroom door most of the way no different than he had done many many times before.
“Yes I am, H-. You’re getting old enough that you shouldn’t be able to see me nor me see you when we go potty,” he answered. “I know it’s confusing because on the car trips you have to come with me. But that’s just because I can’t leave you alone.”
“Oh. Okay,” she responded.
Like an apparition floating passed the cracked door, her locked-forward head led the rest of her body to her room for who knows what reason. Then he saw her pass by once more, heading back to the living room.
“Ughh! I forgot to turn off the light,” she said, exasperated.
Passing by again, she reached up the wall to flip down the light switch.
With a fourth pass she completed her second round trip.
Then, with a giggle, little H- noticed the pattern and blurted out, “It’s like I’m guarding the door!”
He had his very own little volunteer sentry. And that would have been fine until she announced, “I have to go potty now. Will you guard the door for me?”
“I just realized something, H-” he announced, turning down the car stereo.
“I just remembered that on our trip today we’re going to be passing through the toll booths again,” he said. “You know, the ones that have the trolls in them–the trolls that look like people.”
“Trolls that look like people?” she asked, her tone signalling that memories were beginning to solidify.
“Trolls collecting tolls, remember?”
“Oh yeah, I remember now,” she said.
“Do you want to practice your song now? Or do you think you’ll be ready to sing the beautiful flower song when we get to where they are?” he asked.
“I can practice now,” she answered. “And daddy?”
“If I don’t sing a beautiful flower song,” she began earnestly, “then the trolls will chase us down and eat us.”
“That’s right, H-. I gotta pay the toll, and you gotta sing a beautiful flower song as I do. Do you think you’re up to it today?”
“Yep,” she said.
The little girl then began to sing.
Flowers are up in the sky
Flowers are up in the sky
Flowers are dying and some flowers are dying-
“Wait, H-,” he interrupted. “Why are flowers dying? I don’t think that’s going to pass the test. Dying flowers aren’t beautiful.”
“Oh,” she said, realizing he may be telling the truth.
“That’s okay, H-. Just start again.”
The little girl began again.
Flowers are up in the sky
Some flowers are unhappy and other flowers are unhappy-
“H-!” he interrupted a second time. “What is going on here? Why are you singing about flowers dying and being unhappy? The song to keep the trolls from eating us has to be a beautiful flower song. Beautiful. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes, daddy, I can.”
And so again, H- began to sing.
Flowers, flowers are up in the sky
Some flowers are happy
And some flowers-
She cut herself off as soon as the “D” sound began. Laughing at her perfect demonstration of what pilot’s call “strength of an idea”, he suggested she wait until they were at the toll booth and just shoot from the hip then.
Luckily for our duo, on cue H- put together a beautiful number as he paid the toll to the troll.
“That’s my girl. You did good, H-, real good,” he said as they sped away from the danger.
Jessica’s little legs hung off the side of the hospital bed as she sat alone with her mother. Looking directly into her mother’s eyes, Jessica used all her energy to not cry and seemed unaware that her left heel rapidly tapped against the side of the bed.
Just before her last breath, Jessica’s mom told her, “Make sure and practice for me, okay? Your dad loves that piano.”
After the funeral Nick tucked Jessica into bed and leaving the lights off, poured himself a drink.
The next morning a sloppy and slow rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” aroused him to the full force of a hangover.
“Just stop, Jessica,” he groaned.
Slowing and softening just a bit, she pretended not to hear.
“I said stop!” he roared.
Confused and unused to him yelling, she pulled her delicate hands from the keys and as he rapidly approached instinctively raised them to protect herself from the blow that never came. The sound of the piano’s keylid slamming shut opened her clenched eyes just in time to see him turn towards her. She stared right back at him. Embarrassed, ashamed, and now uncertain of what he was capable of, he hurriedly walked away. She turned back to the piano, lifted the keylid, and began to practice.
As he whirled around in disbelief, he felt an unnatural warmness come over his head. He raced to the bathroom. She heard him try to cover up his sickness with coughing. His head pounded as he walked from the flushing toilet to where she was in the living room.
“What did I tell you?” he barked.
This time as he reached for the keylid, the little girl was ready. Matching his determination but not his strength, she pushed back against it with both hands, arms locked.
He let off long enough for her to remove her hands but still closed the lid.
“I don’t want to hear that piano ever again,” he said.
Her face always flushed red before the tears came and this time was no different.
“But mommy told me to practice!” she said as she lifted the lid and, again, began to practice.
They didn’t quite break the mold after her. It’s more like they just put it away way, way up on the top shelf where it was easily forgotten.
She woke up in the morning because that is what you do in the morning. You wake up. These days she didn’t have to work, but she kind of liked it. What else was she going to do all day?
When asked how she would spend a fantastical lottery win, she replied with events that cost nothing–reading, gardening, sitting outside with coffee.
Gossip flew into her neat and clean office but never out of it. Despite working with money all day she never talked of it. Not even to her husband. The most she would do is close her eyes and shake her head to confirm that other’s interrogations were on the right track.
It would be a mistake to say she saw the world in black and white. But life was certainly divided by conspicuously sharp lines. The boldest of these lines brought to the front what you and I might call life’s “have to’s” but she might call her duty. From raising her brothers, to raising her family, to offering a dissenting opinion just when consensus was near, to making her bed every morning, to being on-time, to not leaving dishes in the sink, to putting the cap back on, to cleaning the house on the same day every week, to keeping the washing machine off for at least one day a week, she did these things not because she wanted to, but because if she didn’t they wouldn’t get done. It could be a very tiring existence.
And yet despite the wear and tear that always seems ready to take its toll, our bookkeeper frequently experienced a feeling which most of us do not–satisfaction.
If you’ve seen Cold Mountain, then you’ve been introduced to Sacred Harp singing. It’s also called Shape Note singing. Essentially, it’s this ol’ timey acapella singing where the notes are shaped like squares, circles, diamonds, and triangles and named fa, so, la, and mi. The singers sit in a square (tenor, bass, soprano, alto) facing each other. You can view a video of it here. In any case, one day I was reminded how much I liked the sound of it and used the interwebs to see if anyone in Denver actually still does it. Sho’ ’nuff, they do. So I took H- last night.
First, it was a beautiful church. But the attendance was much lower than I expected. There were eleven of us. Well, including H- there were twelve. Eleven adults, one child. But what a child. If you haven’t watched the video linked above, now is your second reminder and link.
The way the session worked was we just went around the square and chose songs. Usually a person stood up in the middle and “led” the singing. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is common and helps everyone stay on time.
Being sharp and displaying perfect innocence, H- was sure to spell out her first name for the group between the first and second songs and her last name between the second and third songs. And this without even being asked. Endearing is a little weak when it comes to attempting to describe the scene with words.
Next, H- noticed that a participant stood in the middle of the group and asked if she could do it. A kind old woman offered H-, “You can stand with me when I do it.” And H- did–foot tapping and all. (If you’re not in tears at this point, please dial 911). A few songs later there was a delay in anyone standing up to approach the middle of the square. H-‘s response was to fill void. She is so smart. Can you picture it? Use everything I’ve shared with you about this little girl and just imagine her responding to the group’s inquisition, “What are you doing?” with,”Someone needs to stand in the middle.” This child has no fear. Do you remember what that was like? Can you remember? I can’t remember it, but I can report that witnessing it is a gift from God.
Shape note singing. Who would’ve thought it would beget a miracle?
Same car. Same smorgasbord of items in the car. Same occupants. This time, however, they are pulling into the pre-school parking lot. It’s day two of three for the week. Day one’s drop-off ended in tears. Truthfully, it ended in adults acting a-fool in an effort to distract poor H- so that the tears would stop.
Car in mid-turn, he glimpsed the future and said, “Oh, H-.”
“I meant to tell you that I’d like it if you didn’t cry today,” he said. “Remember what we talked about? Instead of crying, how about we agree that you just say, ‘Daddy, I’d like one more hug’?”
“Uh, I think I might do what you said, daddy,” she said, referencing the crying.
“No, H-,” he bemoaned. “You can’t keep crying every day–even if you’re sad. You’re a big girl now-”
“I think I might do what you said, daddy,” she repeated. While strong and carrying surprising foreknowledge, her voice faltered just enough to indicate she really was getting nervous to leave his side.
The exit of the car was uneventful. They entered the room one after the other. He struck up a conversation with the teacher; H- walked towards her seat. He tried to say goodbye. She didn’t turn. He tried once more. She didn’t turn. He quickly scanned the faces of the others in the room. He was speaking out loud, wasn’t he? Then it hit him. Ignoring the pain can be easier than acknowledging it. Social grace told him it was time to exit the classroom. Now it seemed that the pre-game speech was a bit much. No, he thought, that’s not it. She must have just been distracted. Yeah, that’s it.
As vagabonds, their little car was pretty full. The back seat was littered with jackets, a bowling ball bag, a motorcycle helmet, and a few hangars. Not to mention H-‘s booster seat. Despite the fact that she’s a big girl now, he still thought it best to place whatever worksheets and artwork she carried out of school or church at the foot of her seat. These days, however, she was doing all the climbing-in and buckling-up herself. This meant that those papers and art projects might get trampled if care was not taken.
He opened the door for her and straightened out her seat-belt before backing up to allow her room to climb in. Seeing her choose her footing slowly in an effort to not step on the papers, he plainly observed, “Man. There is so much trash in this car.”
For her, probably just an instant passed. For him, an eternity. All he could do was look away and wait. His lips couldn’t purse together harder, nor his head shake with more regret. He certainly couldn’t look towards her face in the interim. A face that was staring at papers colored with love and care. Neither increasing the time it took to inhale, nor searching the sky proved effectual towards relieving the impending doom.
“My papers are not trash,” H- finally concluded, her voice begging for clarification.
“You’re right. They are not trash,” he said.
She seemed satisfied by the new decree, but that didn’t stop him from wondering how many more breaks he would receive. Probably too many.
“So how’s working nights these last three months been going?” George asked.
“It’s okay. The night shift is slightly less stressful and as you know I worked nights nearly my entire time in the Air Force,” Pete answered.
“That’s right. So no big thing? No problems sleeping?”
“Nope, no problems sleeping,” Pete said. “Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes, if I discover something undesirable is happening that is out of my control right before bed then I lie awake thinking about how to regain control. And then I just watch the clock. That’s no fun.”
“The home loan thing did it to me last time. I have no idea why I answered the phone, but I did and it proceeded to limit my sleep to about three hours out of eight that afternoon. Want to know what I thought about most of that time?”
“Sure. What?” George asked.
“Of course you thought about her. H- is your daughter and you miss her. Everyone knows that. That’s nothing to be worried about,” George conceded.
“Not her. Well, of course her, but her. H-‘s mother.”
“Yep. It seemed as rational and logical as anything as I laid there. I was trying to solve the problem of not seeing H- as much as I think I should. And then it hit me. If we re-married, then I’d be able to see H- all the time. And you know that I hate that she has another male adult figure in her life besides me. So I started developing this whole scenario of what life would be like if I approached her mom and tried to make an argument for trying again. She’d have to lose the dogs of course. And quit her job. And do what I say. But man, it could be perfect.”
“I know!” Pete retorted. “I know. That’s what I’m saying George. It was eight acres all over again.”
“Yeah. You remember? The book I’m writing. It’s about how some of us seem to be fine living with unpleasantness in the present by simply imagining and dreaming about some ideal future that is only a few strokes of luck away.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember. You didn’t mention this to her while you were gone did you?”
“Of course I did. Ha. It’s a lot of alone time George.”
“Oh shit. What’d she say?”
“Well, considering her actions during the marriage and the divorce I’d say she just did you a favor Pete. It would’ve never worked. H- would’ve been the worse for it.”
“You’re right. You’re right. Even when I did bring it up, the fantasy had worn off a little and reality set in,” Pete conceded with an expression of sadness that was quickly erased by sincerity. “I just want to see H-.”
“Yep. We all do. Don’t worry so much. You’ll figure it out.”
“I hope so.”